Getting the lead out: Public water systems work to replace lead-containing service lines | Local News
KINGSLEY — New laws forcing municipal water systems statewide to deal with lead pipes have smaller communities eyeing big costs, and help to foot the bill could be on the way.
Kingsley, estimated population 1,618 and with an annual water budget of about $840,000, faced a bill nearly twice that to replace a few more than 200 service lines, village Manager Dan Hawkins said.
“Because we know that we are obligated to enact a replacement plan, we had sought grants, we had sought relief, we were trying to avoid in any way we could to increase water rates for our taxpayers, for our residents,” he said.
Kingsley is hardly alone: a round-up of most municipal water systems in the Record-Eagle five-county coverage area puts the unofficial count at at a minimum of 2,300.
A state mandate that went into effect Jan. 1 requires all water systems to replace lead goosenecks and service lines, pipes that were connected to a lead service line and galvanized pipes at a rate of 5 percent per year, with all replacements done within 20 years, unless an alternate schedule has been approved by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
The cost varies from about $2,500 to $10,000 per line, depending on whether the entire service line, including the water main, is replaced and if a contractor is hired to do the work.
That puts the cost for the five counties at a range from $6 million at the low end to $23 million at the high end.
It’s a cost that is borne by increasing customer rates in some municipalities. Others are using money set aside in their water funds for capital improvements. State loans and grants are also available, while federal funds are coming through as well, both through the American Rescue Plan Act and a recently enacted infrastructure bill.
For Kingsley, help came in the form of a $1.5 million carveout in the latest state budget, courtesy of a request from state Rep. John Roth, R-Traverse City.
That headed off a rate increase village officials dreaded, and sought to avoid any way they could, Hawkins said.
“It was almost like divine intervention, because we were really getting stressed, we did not want to have to tack this onto the taxpayers,” he said
That state funding is the same amount as what estimates put the cost of replacing 217 service lines in Kingsley, Hawkins said, although the number could change once the village completes a state-mandated inventory of its service lines.
State figures show that includes 33 known lead goosenecks — the connector between the water main and the service line to a house or building — but mostly galvanized steel service lines that were once connected to a lead gooseneck.
Roth said he asked for a slice of the state’s general fund to help the village after water testing revealed a high result — the village’s latest 90th-percentile results were 4 parts per billion, state figures show, and Hawkins said he suspects the high sample was taken improperly.
Roth agreed small water systems like Kingsley’s need help to meet the new state rules.
“If we’re going to mandate this and not provide any solutions, I think that’s awful,” Roth said, adding the state should provide at least some of what smaller communities need to replace their lead service lines.
Federal money coming to Michigan could do just that, both from ARPA and from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Roth agreed they’re both good things but it remains to be seen what conditions will be placed on the federal infrastructure funds — they’re still waiting for answers on certain ARPA funds, he said. He expects lawmakers to start discussing the latest federal funding package in earnest next year.
While $15 billion nationwide to deal with lead service lines is a positive step toward ensuring everyone has clean drinking water, it’s not enough to tackle the whole problem, said Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advisor for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Lead pipes are one of the nonprofit advocacy organization’s focuses, and it successfully sued to get money to study and identify lead service lines in Flint, according to the NRDC. The organization estimated there are 460,000 lead service lines, based on state numbers and an industry survey, and while the true number is unknown, Roper said state law puts Michigan ahead of others in counting them.
The NRDC hopes for more funding to replace service lines in another spending package known as “Build Back Better,” Roper said — currently stalled as Democratic senators hash out the size of the package and what the money would be spent on, the Associated Press reported.
The already-adopted infrastructure bill also includes money for Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loans, and in Michigan, state senators are weighing a bill that would put up $600 million for lead service line replacement, Roper said.
All those funding sources could help communities remove known health threats, Roper said.
“It’s not optional to get these pipes out of the ground, we really have to forge ahead and just take care of it and be able to move forward,” she said.
BANNED IN ‘86
Goosenecks and service lines made of lead or those that used solder or flux containing lead were banned from all public water systems by Congress in 1986 with an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act. It includes galvanized pipes that were coated in zinc to prevent corrosion. They were commonly used before 1960 and as they age the coating erodes and they can leach lead. Lead particles can also cling to the inside.
Pipes that were already in the ground were allowed to remain under the 1986 amendment. Until last year, that is.
Gooseneck connectors, so called because of their flexibility, carry water from the main to service lines and into a home or business.
A curb stop is located just inside the property line that allows for water to be turned off to the home. In the past the homeowner has been responsible for replacing pipe inside the curb stop, though there has been no mandate for them to do so.
Under 2019 revisions to the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, municipalities are now responsible for replacing the entire line, even the portion on private property.
Over the years public water departments have replaced many lead lines up to the curb stop, but now must go back and replace the private section of service lines. The state has also banned partial replacements as excavation, construction and cutting pipes can loosen the coating on galvanized pipes or release lead particles, creating a high risk of acute exposure, according to EGLE.
The replacement mandate goes hand-in-hand with 2018 revisions to the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act that require water systems to develop and maintain an inventory of all materials in the system and submit it to EGLE by 2025. The inventory must include service lines on both public and private property.
Several municipalities have eliminated lead lines by replacing them when large road and water main projects are done.
John Friend, superintendent of the Empire Village Department of Public Works, said in doing the inventory homes can be eliminated from the checklist by having documentation of the date they were built. The rest have to be verified lead-free by digging up the lines and checking them, he said.
The village has 379 customers including one section of 18 homes built in the 1950s that likely have lead goosenecks, he said. Friend said a vacuum excavator will be used that drills a hole straight down 5 feet to check those lines and flag them for removal, if needed.
Over the last 10 years the village did a meter replacement program and there was no obvious lead in any household lines, Friend said.
“To the best of my knowledge we have zero, but we have to be able to prove it,” he said.
There’s one lead gooseneck left in Traverse City, Municipal Utilities Director Art Krueger said. But the city has to replace an estimated 1,000 service lines made of galvanized steel that were connected by goosenecks the city started phasing out in the 1960s. The city will have an exact number in 2025 when its system-wide materials inventory is due.
Replacing those lines is one part of the city’s plan in borrowing $14.75 million from the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund, Krueger said. The idea is to replace them at a slightly quicker pace than the state’s requirement of 5 percent per year — 60 service line swaps annually versus about 50. It’ll cost about $400,000 per year.
Even with tests showing low lead levels coming out of Traverse City faucets — 90th-percentile results from December 2019 were 1 part per billion, state figures show — Krueger agreed the need to replace the galvanized steel service lines is there.
“The fact that there is no lead piping and it’s galvanized, I think … that it’s a concern but it’s maybe a lesser potential health issue than it is in cities that have all the lead pipes, the lead service lines,” he said. “But it’s still something we don’t want to take lightly, we want to get them changed out.”
Plus, lead pipes leach at varying rates, so a faucet giving a low sample one day could be high the next, Roper said.
Grand Traverse County has no lead goosenecks in its system, said John Divozzo, the county’s director of public works.
“Typically townships came in after those were outlawed for service,” Divozzo said.
Kingsley is not a part of the county system.
In Bellaire there are 300 to 400 suspected lead goosenecks but officials won’t know for sure until they dig them up, said Aaron Kirt, certified water operator.
The village plans to follow state guidelines and replace 5 percent of them per year to meet the 2041 deadline. The cost is about $2,500 per service line, said Treasurer and Deputy Clerk Cathy Odom. The cost is less because the village is doing the work in-house rather than contracting it out, she said.
In Ellsworth Village many of the goosenecks were replaced in 1986 when a new water system was built; the rest were replaced about five years ago.
The Mancelona Area Water and Sewer Authority has 1,300 customers. Many of the water mains and goosenecks have already been replaced but under the new mandate the village is required to replace galvanized customer service lines within the curb stop, said Susan Cooper, office manager and controller.
The village started with 198; 21 were replaced this year at a cost of $76,000 and another 15 will be done next year, Cooper said.
Much of the Mancelona system is new as a result of 1,400 wells that were contaminated by the Wickes Manufacturing Trichloroethylene Plume, one of the largest groundwater contaminations in the U.S. All of the affected homes and businesses were connected to the Mancelona system after the plume was discovered in 1999.
In Elberta Village the oldest section of the water system was built in 1935, said Rick Biddle, superintendent of the Department of Public Works. The system has a total of 250 customers.
An upcoming project will replace 183 lead goosenecks and service lines at a cost of $2 million, according to Ken Mlcek, project manager for Fleis & Vandenbrink, the company that is doing the job.
Those service lines were determined “likely to contain lead” when the village did its preliminary inventory, Mlcek said.
The project is funded by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program. The village is also pursuing funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture to replace water mains installed in 1935, and to install a new well and well house at an estimated cost of $3.4 million, Mlcek said.
In the Village of Beulah a random sampling of seven homes and businesses done Sept. 29 resulted in one business having elevated lead levels that put the metal at 30 parts per billion across the entire water supply, according to a report on the village’s website. The water system has about 380 customers.
The goal for lead in drinking water is 0 ppb, according to EGLE, as there is no safe level of lead in the blood.
Because the village is small, one lead elevation can put its 90th-percentile measurement above state action levels of 15 parts per billion, the report states.
That’s when a municipality must work with EGLE and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on an action plan.
The plan includes increased sampling and education outreach to residents. The village also has water filters available that were provided by the MDHHS.
The business was retested Oct. 29 and came back negative, according to a more recent report.
Under an order from EGLE, the village must facilitate water testing, but does not collect samples or pay for the test. MDHHS offers free testing and information about the program is offered on the village website, said Jeri VanDePerre, village council president and chairman of the water and sewer department.
She said the village has no knowledge of any existing lead lines or goosenecks.
Of Frankfort’s 1,104 water customers, there are 177 homes or businesses that were previously connected to lead, all of which must be changed out, said Joshua Mills, superintendent.
Fifty of those lines were replaced as part of a total reconstruction of about six blocks of Main Street that replaced water mains along with sewer upgrades, widened sidewalks, lights and streetscaping.
The project was paid for with a voted 20-year, 3.38-mill tax to fund Frankfort’s $1.2 million share of the project.
There are likely about another 50 goosenecks left in the system, of which about 16 will be replaced in 2022, Mills said.
Leelanau County has four municipal water systems in Northport, Empire, Suttons Bay and Greilickville, which is operated by Grand Traverse County.
Northport has 360 water customers and no lead goosenecks or service lines in the village, said water operator Bill Tompkins, who has been on the job for about 20 years.
“There could be some out there, but that is unlikely,” Tompkins said.
In Suttons Bay Village, however, there are 119 pipes known to contain lead, said Dave Miller, director of facilities for the village.
Miller said the village is following the state mandate to replace 5 percent of them per year, using water fund money to do the work.
“We’ve been doing some as we’ve done other work and have run across them,” Miller said.
Suttons Bay has 374 water customers.
Messages to Kalkaska village officials weren’t returned by Friday. Preliminary inventories submitted to EGLE show no lead goosenecks or galvanized lines formerly hooked up to one, with 818 unknown but likely not lead.